Homeschooling, Ideology, and The “Culture War”

Homeschooling, as characterized by someone who prefers “public” [sic] schools: “it’s all about ideology first; creating soldiers for the culture war“.

Sure. In some tragic cases, that is what is going on.

And how exactly is that different from government schools? What does he think government schools are doing?

Yes, some people use home education to teach their kids harmful lies while insulating them from competing ideas (truth, reality, and ethics). That’s bad. They should not do this to vulnerable children.

Yet, government schools do the exact same thing— even teaching some of the same harmful lies the worst of the homeschoolers are teaching.

If you are teaching your kids to pledge allegiance to a flag, to honor political “authority“, that government is good or necessary, you are teaching a toxic ideology to kids too young to know any better– whether they are being taught at home or in a theft-funded kinderprison.

If you expect these kids to go out and become “good citizens” while promoting your favorite flavor of statism, you’ve done nothing but indoctrinate these trusting children into your death cult religion. The religion of Statism. You are training them to be soldiers in the culture war, fighting for the side of statism.

It’s kind of pathetic to criticize someone for doing the same thing your preferred cult is doing– even if the details differ a little.

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Reflections from Spain

I just got back from a five-week visit to Spain.  The first four weeks, I was teaching labor economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín while my sons took Spanish-language classes on Islamism, Self-Government, and the Philosophy of Hayek.  Then we rented a van and saw Cordoba, Seville, Gibraltar, Fuengirola, Granada, and Cuenca.  During my stay, I also spoke to the Instituto von Mises in Barcelona, Effective Altruism Madrid, the Rafael del Pino Foundation, and the Juan de Mariana Institute.  I had ample time to share ideas with UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián, UFM professor Eduardo Fernández, Juan Pina and Roxana Niculu of the Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad, and my Facebook friend Scott McLain.  Using my sons as interpreters, I also conversed with about 25 Uber drivers.  Hardly a scientific sample, but here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Overall, Spain was richer and more functional than I expected.  The grocery stores are very well-stocked; the worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.  Restaurants are cheap, even in the tourist areas.  Almost all workers I encountered did their jobs with a friendly and professional attitude.  There is near-zero violent crime, though many locals warned us about pickpockets.

2. The biggest surprise was the low level of English knowledge of the population.  Even in tourist areas, most people spoke virtually no English.  Without my sons, I would have been reduced to pantomiming (or Google translate) many times a day.  Movie theaters were nevertheless full of undubbed Hollywood movies, and signs in (broken) English were omnipresent.

3. I wasn’t surprised by the high level of immigration, but I was shocked by its distribution.  While there are many migrants from Spanish America, no single country has sent more than 15% of Spain’s migrantsThe biggest source country, to my surprise, is Romania; my wife chatted with fellow Romanians on a near-daily basis.  I was puzzled until a Romanian Uber driver told me that a Romanian can attain near-fluent Spanish in 3-4 months.  Morocco comes in at #2, but Muslims are less visible in Madrid than in any other European capital I’ve visited.

4. 75% of our Uber drivers were immigrants, so we heard many tales of the immigrant experience.  Romanians aside, we had drivers from Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Pakistan.  Even the Pakistanis seemed highly assimilated and almost overjoyed to reside in Spain.  By the way, Uber in Spain works even better than in the U.S.  The median wait time was 3 minutes, and the prices were about one-third less than in the U.S.

5. Refugees from Chavismo were prominent and vocal.  One Venezuelan Uber driver was vocally pro-Trump.  You might credit Trump’s opposition to Maduro, but the driver said she liked him because “He doesn’t talk like a regular politician.”  I wanted to ask, “Couldn’t you say the same about Chavez and Maduro?!” but I was in listening mode.

6. I’ve long been dumbfounded by Spain’s high unemployment rate, which peaked at around 27% during the Great Recession and currently stands at about 15%.  Could labor market regulation really be so much worse in Spain than in France or Italy?  My chats with local economists – and observation of the labor market – confirmed my skepticism.  According to these sources, a lot of officially “unemployed” workers are lying to collect unemployment insurance while they work in the black market.  Immigrants reported little trouble finding work, though they did gravitate toward “New Economy” jobs like Uber driving.  I still think that Spanish unemployment is a tragic problem, especially for the young.  Yet properly measured, finding a job in Spain is plausibly easier than finding a job in France or Italy.  (This obviously raises the question, “To what extent is unemployment in France and Italy inflated in the same way?”  If you know of good sources, please share in the comments).

7. If I didn’t know the history of the Spanish Civil War, I never would have guessed that Spain ever had a militant labor movement.  Tipping was even rarer than in France, but sincere devotion to customer service seems higher than in the U.S.  Perhaps my sons charmed them with their high-brow Spanish, but I doubt that explains more than a small share of what I saw.  A rental car worker apologized for charging me for returning my car with a 95% full tank, adding, “Sorry, but my boss will yell at me if I don’t.”

8. Catalan independence is a weighty issue for both Barcelona and Madrid libertarians.  Madrid libertarians say that an independent Catalonia would be very socialist; Barcelona libertarians say the opposite.  I found the madrileños slightly more compelling here, but thought both groups were wasting time on this distraction.  Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing.  (Plus austerity, of course).

9. UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián was originally an architect.  We discussed Spanish housing regulation at length, and I walked away thinking that Spain is strangling construction about as severely as the U.S. does.

10. Spanish housing regulation is especially crazy, however, because the country is unbelievably empty.  You can see vast unused lands even ten miles from Madrid.  The train trip to Barcelona passes through hundreds of miles of desert.  Yes, the U.S. has even lower population density, but Spain is empty even in regions where many millions of people would plausibly like to live.

11. The quickest way to explain Spain to an American: Spain is the California of Europe.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and often found myself looking around and thinking, “This could easily be California.”  The parallel is most obvious for geography – the deserts, the mountains, the coasts.  But it’s also true architecturally; the typical building in Madrid looks like it was built in California in 1975.  And at least in summer, the climates of Spain and California match closely.  Spain’s left-wing politics would also resonate with Californians, but Spain doesn’t seem so leftist by European standards.  Indeed, Spaniards often told me that their parents remain staunch Franco supporters.

12. My biggest epiphany: Spain has more to gain from immigration than virtually any other country on Earth.  There are almost 500 million native Spanish speakers on Earth – and only 47 million people in Spain.  (Never mind all those non-Spanish speakers who can acquire fluency in less than a year!)  Nearly all of these Spanish speakers live in countries that are markedly poorer and more dangerous than Spain, so vast numbers would love to migrate.  And due to the low linguistic and cultural barriers, the migrants are ready to hit the ground running.  You can already see migration-fueled growth all over Spain, but that’s only a small fraction of Spain’s potential.

13. Won’t these migrants vote to ruin Spain?  I don’t see the slightest hint of this.  Migrants come to work, not to change Spain.  And it’s far from clear that natives’ political views are better than migrants’.  Podemos, the left-wing populist party, doesn’t particularly appeal to immigrant voters.  Vox, the right-wing populist party, seems to want more immigration from Spanish America, though they naturally want to slash Muslim immigration.

14. How can immigration to Spain be such a free lunch?  Simple: Expanding a well-functioning economy is far easier than fixing a poorly-functioning economy. The Romanian economy, for example, has low productivity.  Romanian people, however, produce far more in Spain than at home.  Give them four months to learn the language, and they’re ready to roll.

15. According to my sources, Spain’s immigration laws willfully defy this economic logic.  When illegal migrants register with the government, they immediately become eligible for many government benefits.  Before migrants can legally work, however, they must wait three years.  Unsurprisingly, then, you see many people who look like illegal immigrants working informally on the streets, peddling bottled water, sunglasses, purses, and the like.  I met one family that was sponsoring Venezuelan refugees.  Without their sponsorship, the refugees would basically be held as prisoners in a government camp – or even get deported to Venezuela.  Why not flip these policies, so migrants can work immediately, but wait three years to become eligible for government benefits?  Who really thinks that people have a right to the labor of others, but no right to labor themselves?

16. Our favorite day was actually spent in Gibraltar.  Highly recommended; you simply cannot overrate the apes.  I was astounded to learn that the border with Spain was totally closed until 1982, and only normalized in 1985.  In a rare triumph of the self-interested voter hypothesis, 96% of Gibraltarians voted against Brexit.  Crossing the border is already kind of a pain; pedestrians have to go through (cursory) Spanish and British passport checks both ways, and the car line is supposed to take an hour.  I’d hate to be living in Gibraltar if security gets any tighter.

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

18. Related observation: Once you’ve seen Spain, the idea that underdevelopment and oppression are somehow “intrinsic to Islam” is ridiculous.  The monuments of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Spain are all around you.  So are basic facts like: Muslim Cordoba was once the largest city in Europe – and plausibly the most tolerant as well.  While bad outcomes are somewhat persistent, dramatic turnarounds are also common.

19. Another example: In less than a century, Spain has gone from being a battleground between reactionary Catholicism and violent atheism to a land of extreme religious apathy.  Non-practicing Catholics now outnumber practicing Catholics 2:1.

20. After I visit a new country, Tyler Cowen always asks me, “Are you long or short?”  In terms of potential, I’m very long on Spain.  The trinity of “deregulate immigration, employment, and housing” is vital in almost every country, but this formula would do more for Spain than nearly any other country.  Wise policy would make Spain the biggest economy in Europe in twenty years flat.  Unfortunately, these policies are highly unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, so my actual forecast is only moderately positive.  At this point, I can picture Tyler aphorizing, “The very fact that a country has massive unrealized potential is a reason to be pessimistic about its future.”  But this goes too far.  All else equal, a higher upper bound is clearly a reason for optimism – and by European standards, the Spanish economy is now doing very well.

21. Overall, my visit has made me more optimistic about Spain.  Much of the measured unemployment is illusory, and immigrants are pouring in to profit from Spain’s combination of high productivity and linguistic accessibility.  Housing policy remains bad.  Since housing regulation is decentralized, however, some regions of Spain will be atypically tolerant of new construction.  Where is the Texas of Spain?  I don’t know, but that’s where the future is.

Correction: I originally stated that Spain had lower population density than the contiguous U.S., but I was mixing up population per square mile and population per square kilometer.

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What (Other) Economists Think About Democrats’ Education Plans

A recent NPR article, titled “What Economists Think About Democrats’ New Education Proposals,” caught my eye. FEE, after all, is an economic education organization that looks at how free markets and individual liberty lead to more progress, greater prosperity, and better outcomes for all than any other social or economic system ever created. I was curious what these NPR-interviewed economists might say about the Democratic presidential candidates’ education plans, which involve funneling more money into a government system of mass compulsory schooling.

What’s the Plan?

According to the article, Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris wants to spend $315 billion of taxpayer money to lift teacher salaries. Joe Biden wants to increase federal spending to low-income schools with teacher pay hikes. Bernie Sanders wants to impose price controls for teacher salaries, imposing a pay floor of $60,000 for incoming teachers. To its credit, the NPR article explains that by both domestic and international standards, American teachers are already well compensated and enjoy above-average employee benefits.

But that’s not enough, according to one of the economists interviewed. Eric Hanushek of Stanford says: “I think teachers are way underpaid.” Hanushek and others argue that teachers who are able to increase student test scores can improve both a student’s lifetime earnings and contribute positively to society at large.

The NPR reporter, Greg Rosalsky, concludes: “While being a good teacher means huge economic benefits for the people they teach and society at large, teachers don’t get to fully share in all the benefits they create. In economic terms, that’s a positive externality, and it’s a big reason why we should pay them more.”

Duquesne University economist Antony Davies disagrees. Davies, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at FEE, explains that the media often misunderstands and misuses the term “externality,” as NPR did here. “Failing to share fully in the benefits one creates is not an externality,” says Davies. He continues:

The phenomenon is called “consumer surplus.” Not only does it exist in every transaction, it’s the reason we exchange with each other at all. Consider a car purchase. When a car dealer charges me $30,000 for a car for which I would have been willing to pay $35,000, the dealer does not benefit fully from the exchange. I walk away from the exchange $5,000 better off. But that doesn’t mean the dealer doesn’t benefit also. If the dealer charges me $30,000 but would have been willing to take $27,000, then the exchange makes the dealer $3,000 better off. For the exchange to occur, neither I nor the dealer can fully benefit from the exchange. Instead, we share the benefit. How we share the benefit is determined by the price to which we agree.

If teachers benefited fully from the value they create, there would be no point in obtaining an education because the entire value of the students’ educations would go to the teachers. Similarly, if students fully benefited from the value that teachers impart, there would be no point in teaching because the entire value of the students’ educations would go to the students. Instead, teachers and students share the value they create, and both walk away from the exchange better off than they were.

Davies points out a central problem with the Democratic presidential candidates’ education proposals, arguing that creating salary floors or offering universal pay increases do not address the root of the problem. He says:

The problem with teacher pay isn’t that teachers are paid too much, nor is it that they are paid too little. The problem with teacher pay is that it is largely divorced from teacher performance. Because pay schedules are usually set by the school district, principals don’t have the ability to reward outstanding teachers with greater pay nor to punish poor teachers with less.

Angela Dills, professor of economics at Western Carolina University, concurs. “I agree that better teachers should receive higher pay and that that’s more effective than across the board pay increases,” she says.

The inability to differentiate teacher quality and pay teachers accordingly limits the opportunity to reward top teachers and urge weaker teachers to improve. School leaders are not the only ones without the discretion to signal good and bad performance. Parents are also unable to offer these signals, with most required to keep their child in an assigned district school whether they like it or not. According to Davies: “Parents don’t have the ability to reward outstanding public schools and punish failing schools by diverting their tax dollars to the schools of their choice.”

A Better Alternative

Education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), tax-credit scholarship programs, and vouchers, allow parents to signal quality by opting out of inadequate schools and into higher quality learning spaces that work better for their children. Davies explains:

Voucher opponents claim that vouchers diminish the quality of public education by siphoning tax dollars away from public schools. But regardless of whether the quality argument is correct, the siphoning can easily be avoided. Allowing parents to send their children to any public school they choose and have the tax dollars follow the student—essentially, a voucher program restricted to public schools—would restore the link between pay and performance without removing any dollars from the public school system.

Programs like these can put parents back in charge of their children’s educations and can trigger true educational change. But the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates appears more interested in expanding the government’s ability to impose decisions on us. Empowering people to make their own choices is not in their education plans.

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Today’s Schools Are Yesterday’s Streetcars: How Technology Will Transform Education

We can predict the future of education by glimpsing the past of transportation. Fueled by technological innovation, namely electricity, streetcars gradually replaced the horse-and-buggy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by mass-produced automobiles that ultimately toppled the streetcar.

Throughout the 20th century, cars became safer, faster, cleaner, and cheaper and allowed individuals unprecedented mobility and autonomy. Then, in the 21st century, car-sharing applications showed how technology could once again disrupt the transportation industry, expanding rider options and challenging entrenched systems of control.

Personalized Learning

Education transformation will take a similar path. Fueled by technological innovation, schools are now in the middle of their streetcar moment. Chalkboards are still ubiquitous, but computers are increasingly being used not only to supplement learning but also to administer it. Personalized learning, as this technology-enabled classroom education is called, is all the rage.

In public schools like those using Summit Learning, a personalized, online learning approach developed by Facebook engineers and funded by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the computer becomes the teacher, executing a largely self-paced curriculum and offering more flexibility and autonomy for students.True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. The platform has sparked controversy, as some parents and educators resist change. Like the streetcar and transportation, personalized learning in schools is altering and modernizing the educational landscape. But it is just a launchpad.

True education transformation will come when learners realize that they don’t need an intermediary at all. Personalized learning in conventional schools will shift to self-directed education or unschooling, driven by the learner herself using the resource-rich networks of both real and digital communities. As Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society:

The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

Illich wrote those words in 1970 before the technological webs now at our fingertips were ever imagined. The funnel model of education, even when augmented by technology, is simply passé. Conflating learning with schooling, mired in coercion and a controlled curriculum, is an outdated idea. Schooling is something that others do to you; learning is something you do for yourself.

A New Perspective on Learning Itself

We already see how this works in our own adult lives. Just as the first automobiles began to disrupt old notions of transportation, recent technological innovations are recalibrating the way we learn. Whether it’s using YouTube to fix a toilet, Duolingo to learn a language, Audible to listen to books, or FaceTime to have lessons with your guitar instructor, technological platforms and applications are quickly helping us to shed our schooled vision of learning. Increasingly, we see that we can self-educate by following our own curiosities and pursuing our own personal and professional goals.

We can choose our own teachers and select the learning tools that work best for us. In his book, Illich wrote,

School prepares for the institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.

Technology frees us from this institutional paradigm of education and lets us teach ourselves.

It can do the same for our children. As our own relationship to learning shifts in response to new technologies that make information and knowledge more accessible, we may begin to question the worn-out ways our children learn. As we realize the value and reward of self-education in our own lives, we’ll want to give this gift to our children.

Minimally Invasive Education

In his academic papers and award-winning 2013 TED Talk, Newcastle University professor Sugata Mitra explains how children teach themselves without institutional schooling. His “hole in the wall” studies have been widely cited, showing how children from the poorest slums of India to elsewhere around the world are able to learn to read, to teach themselves English, and to understand advanced scientific content (like DNA replication) simply by having access to an Internet-enabled public computer.

Mitra calls this approach “minimally invasive education” and concludes in his talk:

If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen.

Thanks to technology, we adults now see this learning emerge all the time in our own lives. It can be the same for our children.

In the 21st century, the transportation industry was jolted again by technological innovation. Uber, Lyft, and other car-sharing companies challenged longstanding local monopolies, granting riders more choice and flexibility with better service and lower costs. Next, autonomous vehicles may be the new wave of disruptive innovation in transportation. Meanwhile, in education, technology will continue to expand access to resources, information, knowledge, and skills that make self-education outside of schooling not only possible but preferable.

Like the streetcar and horse-and-buggy, institutional schooling will become a cultural relic, a quaint reminder of yesteryear. We will realize that non-coercive, technology-enabled, self-directed education in collaboration with others results in better, more meaningful, more enduring learning than its institutional predecessors can offer. We will realize that we can be educated without being schooled. Indeed, the future is here.

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Letter from an “Anti-School Teacher”

I recently received this email from a self-styled “anti-school teacher.”  Reprinted unchanged with permission of the author, Samuel Mosley.


Dear Professor Caplan,

My name is Samuel Mosley. I studied economics at Beloit College, my advisor was a former graduate student of yours, Laura Grube.

I recently read The Case Against Education and it explained so much of what I see. Like many new graduates who do not know exactly what they want to do but want to do something that helps people, I became a teacher right after college. I have spent the last year teaching math at a high school in Chicago. Observing how unlikely it was that the decisions we make increase our students human capital, I wondered how it could be of benefit to the students. Your book helped me answer that question.

I was swayed to believe that education is overfunded. I began to view every decision made by my boss with the question “is this to add to our students’ human capital or their signaling value?” Looking at the school from this framework, I have come to suspect that education is best understood as a game theory problem. Often, my bosses are faced with options where one option would be better for the students’ human capital and another would help the student send a more functional signal. The school I teach at invests time in signals (like AP Calculus) because it will enrich our students’ lives more than classes that would cultivate their human capital (like AP Statistics). Because every school can choose to signal, we arrive at a Nash Equilibrium where students at none of the schools acquire human capital and the decisions of schools’ to signal cancel each other out.

Assume schools can either set the average grade to B or C. Schools that set the average grade to C have higher standards so students from those schools graduate college at a higher rate. Assume also that college admissions officers do not have perfect information about the standards of each high school so they admit students from schools where a B is the the average grade more often than students from schools where a C is the average grade.

Now, say Theoryville College only admits students from Row High School and Column High School. There are only 1000 spots available. Students from Row and Column only apply to Theoryville. Both schools have 1000 seniors. Theoryville accepts students evenly if they both come from schools with similar standards. If one school chooses lower standards (B), 700 of their students will get in and 300 from the other school. 45 percent of students from low standards schools graduate college while 55 percent of students from high standards schools graduate. Assume the utility function for both high schools is the number of its students who complete college, with no penalty for having students go to college and leave degreeless in debt.  So, the game matrix can be expressed:

C B
C 275, 275 135, 315
B 315, 135 225, 225

This simple prisoners’ dilemma does not seem immediately relevant to the human capital vs. signaling debate and it does not address the question of whether or not college brings human capital. I choose college completion as the utility function for simplicity. Schools of standard C produce graduates who are more ready for college. Schools of standard B produce graduates who appear more college ready. Replace the idea of college readiness with “human capital,” and this becomes relevant. Signaling has become more profitable to schools, so they invest resources in signals when they could invest resources in human capital. This is a different claim from the one that schools cannot produce human capital. My time at this job has convinced me prisoners dilemmas like this one exist for course offering, course placement, pass rates and a number of other decisions schools face.

Do you think it’s at all likely that schools would be better human capital factories given an incentive structure that accounts for the game theory problem? Do you think game theory is a useful framework for this problem?

Sincerely,

Samuel Mosley

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Electrocuting Dogs

Nobody asked but …

“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell,” wrote Carl Sandburg.  Although this is specific advice for lawyers, it can be general advice for us all.  Unfortunately, the less beneficial aspects of this advice are often explored.

I am in the middle of a good book right now.  The novel is The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore.  It is about the competition between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison, with the involvement of Nicola Tesla, for the electrification of America.  I am fascinated by this kind of stuff, as I come from a line of engineers, started college as an electrical engineering student, and have stayed in college, learning and teaching, as a software engineer for the rest of my life, so far.  As a voluntaryist, I am even more fascinated by the human dynamic of the open market which resulted in the current (no pun intended) worldwide dependence on the infrastructure of electricity.

The time period in question, the mid-19th century, was an early beneficiary of the scientific method, propounded by giants like Newton and DesCartes.  But many of the people involved were not Newton or DesCartes.  Like the first attempts at illumination, the era often generated more heat than light.  Charlatanism had also been handed down by phrenologists and alchemists.  Getting something for nothing proved to be the same siren song for humans as it always had.  Wishful thinking, magical thinking, and confirmation bias abounded.

Insincere spokespersons advocated making the architectural choice between AC or DC by making theatrical presentations involving first shocking then electrocuting dogs and horses.  Eventually the stakes were raised to Edison’s film about the electrocution of an elephant, and further a doctored film of human electrocution (where the state intervened in the argument).  None of these shows were dispositive of careful scientific principle, but the presenters made sure that lots of reporters were there.

How many humans and other animals have died since, based on the choice?  One would hope, when decisions with such a long tail are made, it is done with less show biz but more careful consideration of principle.

— Kilgore Forelle

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